An open conversation around
open access

Open access

Open Access Week 2021 stimulated many discussions across the world pertaining to the theme, “It matters how we open knowledge: Building structural equity”. In light of this year’s event, we discuss open access (OA) and open research with

Lisa Walton, Global Publishing Strategy Manager at BMJ, a global healthcare knowledge provider with a wide variety of products and services; 

Bryan Hibbard, Journal Editorial and Production Manager at Society of Petroleum Engineers (SPE), an independent, nonprofit global society focused on the upstream oil and gas industry; and 

Melissa Harrison, former Head of Production Operations at eLife, a non-profit organization that works across publishing, technology, and research culture.  

Where are we now in terms of opening knowledge equitably and what needs to be done? What can publishers do to build a sustainable open ecosystem?

Melissa Harrison: Science is a global endeavor, and it should work to improve the lives of all of humanity. Yet this is not achieved, in part because the current scientific enterprise frequently perpetuates inequalities that exclude people from participating in science or accessing its outputs. A diverse scientific workforce is key to solving the complex problems facing society today, but not everyone is welcomed, appreciated or empowered in science. Discrimination and other inequalities deprive the scientific workforce of many talented individuals. Biases – whether explicit, implicit or systematic – often go unacknowledged and unaddressed. Only a narrow set of perspectives, backgrounds, contributions and career paths are commonly valued and respected, which combined with intense competition for jobs and funding, can make scientific and medical research unhealthy places to work with poor work-life balance.

Open access is just the beginning. To truly democratize scientific outputs we need to go further and build open source tooling and apply things like The Principles of Open Scholarly Infrastructure (POSI) to this infrastructure. The roles of funders and institutions are even more important than publishers in creating a sustainable ecosystem.

Bryan Hibbard: Many of the early open access initiatives focused on the largest players as well as those that were well funded. Requiring an author to pay an article processing charge (APC) to publish OA can be prohibitively expensive for many researchers. While hybrid open access journals still offer a free publishing path, they disadvantage those who cannot afford OA. While from a reader standpoint, the OA movement has increased access, it has not done the same for authors. We need to work towards fair models that cover the cost of publication but give equal access to OA for all authors. 

OA models need to be fair to all and sustainable for both large and small publishers. I have yet to see a sustainable Gold OA option. While many publishers using transformative agreements are dependent on research libraries to continue to fund research that they can access for free, I believe this will be the first area that is cut when libraries are asked to contract their budget.

Lisa Walton: Reducing the burden on researchers to publish open access and ensuring equitable access to publish openly both contribute to the sustainability of the open access ecosystem. As part of our work towards that, BMJ is evaluating its waiver policy and working on offering transitional agreements that remove administrative barriers to publishing open access.

Please tell us about the OA initiatives adopted by your journal and the impact these have had on your authors and readers.

Lisa Walton: The research in our flagship journal, The BMJ, has always been free to read, and in 2011 we launched our first and largest open access medical journal, BMJ Open. Today, a third of our journals are fully open access, and we also make academic research freely accessible and discoverable with hybrid publication models. The majority of our hybrid journals have been given Transformative Journal status by cOAlition S. Through BMJ’s OA campaign, we support authors to achieve global impact, broader reach, and exceptional quality. 

In 2019, BMJ co-launched medRxiv with Yale University and Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory. It is the first health sciences preprint server, and it allows fast sharing of preliminary research findings to the widest possible audience. medRxiv now highlights when preprints have been accepted or published across BMJ’s journal portfolio, further contributing to the reliability and value of preprints as part of the scientific record. Journals like BMJ Open Science improve the validity and quality of pre-clinical research through open practices.

BMJ is also part of initiatives like Initiative for Open Citations (I4OC) and Initiative for Open Abstracts (I4OA), making it easier for articles to be found, read, and cited. 

Bryan Hibbard: SPE will be introducing a hybrid open access model in 2022 using traditional APCs with discounts for members and authors from low- and middle-income countries. Open access will be optional, and the subscription model will still be available to all.

Melissa Harrison: eLife has been open access from the outset so we focus our attention on open science, which includes reproducibility, open data, open software and so on.

eLife, via Mark Patterson, was one of the organizations that spearheaded DORA (The Declaration on Research Assessment) recognizes the need to improve the ways in which researchers and the outputs of scholarly research are evaluated) and I4OC (initiative for open citations). We have since supported I4OA.

We ensure our content is machine readable and we submit as much metadata as we have and is allowed in the Crossref schema. Crossref APIs are used so far and wide and so much is being built upon them that we feel it’s important to make as much available as possible there, hence the I4OA and I4OC initiatives.

Editorial policies and eLife staff QC support open science, and we publish transparent reporting forms, key resources tables, data availability statements, as well as encouraging open underlying code and data that supports the research. We support many other initiatives, including the CredIT taxonomy, FAIR sharing principles, the Open Funder Registry, and ROR. From all of this, we also generate full text XML that semantically demonstrates these initiatives as well as developing standardization across corpus XML via JATS4R recommendations, and delivery downstream to indexers, and Crossref.

What role do you think DEI initiatives play in making research accessible to a wider audience?

Lisa Walton: DEI initiatives can give authors and researchers equal support to get their work published, regardless of their sex, gender, race or ethnicity, first language, sexual orientation, religion, beliefs, disability status, age, status, nationality or citizenship. This approach serves to dismantle the barriers that have previously prevented women and underrepresented groups from being published, having a voice or advancing their careers.

Melissa Harrison: Fortunately, there is increasing recognition of these issues, and a willingness to face them. As a publisher and organization looking to reform research communication, eLife has the ability to influence the community and promote greater equity, diversity and inclusion in research and publishing.

eLife’s Community Ambassadors programme and Early-Career Advisory Group are active in helping us change and we have targets to diversify our editorial board and staff composition. We have introduced a code of conduct for all eLife interactions, as well as a social media policy, to ensure all voices are heard and for mutual respect to be adhered to. There are many other areas of activity ongoing and in development.

Where do you see Open Access in the next few years? What are the changes you anticipate?

Bryan Hibbard: I expect many more new ideas to appear in the OA field and expect to see a crystallization of what actually works in OA. I think we are still in the very early stages, and publishers are throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. I do believe that many of the current models that publishers are pursuing will turn out to be unsustainable. This is one of the reasons that we are dipping our toe in, so to speak, by utilizing hybrid open access and waiting to see what comes next.

Lisa Walton: BMJ supports and promotes a future built on the principle of unrestricted access to the outputs of medical research, encouraging scientific discourse and facilitating further medical advances. We expect to see increases in the proportion and amount of research published open access.

Melissa Harrison: Any new journal being launched is open access. The challenge is to flip the long standing hybrid or closed access journals to an open access model. Funders have signaled their commitment to open access and initiatives like Plan S are pushing the needle further. The key issue will be to change the whole business models around publishing and for this to be achievable for any journal, and not just monopolized by the big publishers.

Events like Open Access Week 2021 are critical for the growth of the global research community as it encourages all stakeholders to discuss pressing issues. We are grateful to Lisa Walton, Bryan Hibbard, and Melissa Harrison for sharing their insights with us!


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